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The Culture of the Atelier – Connecting minds, hands, rationality and emotions

The Culture of the Atelier – Connecting minds, hands, rationality and emotions

In my last blog post, I talked about the Hundred Languages, the many ways of knowing and expressing that belong to children.  The schools of Reggio Emilia, Italy have given us what Vea Vecchi, who was the atelierista at the Diana Municipal Preschool in Reggio Emilia for 30 years, calls, “The Culture of the Atelier” to live in and inspire our work with children.

My initial understanding of the word “atelier” is its direct translation from the French – workshop for an artist, an art studio.  And while the classrooms in Reggio Emilia started as rooms with art studios (ateliers) attached, they evolved into places where the culture of the atelier influences everything that happens in the classroom.  This remains a big part of my work with the oldest children at Opal School.  How can I make the Culture of the Atelier part of our everyday work at school?

Sure, the atelier brings us materials and beauty and the languages of the arts, but there is more.  According to Vea Vecchi, “…the atelier is a place of provocation.  The atelier is a place that guarantees that knowledge and learning are taking place with the mind and the hand as well as rationality and emotions connected.”

What does it look like when 9, 10 and 11 year olds are invited to construct knowledge with their minds, hands, rationality and emotions connected?  How do the culture of the atelier, materials and the hundred languages support this work?

After a couple of weeks of looking carefully at groups and how they act and interact, we took a step back on Friday and asked the children to consider what conditions support them to bring themselves to a group, especially to a learning community.  We asked them,

What do you need so that you can share your ideas and feel like you’re part of the conversation of learning community?

And while the whole class had quiet time to consider this question in writing, a small group of children came into the studio space in our classroom to consider this question through loose parts collage.  I chose this group of eight children because they did not speak during the whole class discussion about group dynamics the day before, and I was eager to hear how they would respond to this question within the culture of the atelier, where materials could relax their bodies and brains, and where they could in a small, beautiful, quiet place and feel honored and heard.

The room was silent as this group of children started to manipulate the wire and materials.  What a strikingly different feeling than the one of a whole group discussion! They got started slowly on their creations, letting the materials help them focus and tune into the question, and then, one by one, they called me over to explain their creations to me.


DE:  This is my own space bubble.  I can turn it on when people aren’t talking and turn it off when people are talking so I can hear my ideas.



DW:  See this little piece of wire?  I didn’t put them in all of them, but they are all there.  There is somebody out here, like a person.  The bells are people when it’s ringing it’s talking and it means this little thing is taken out.  They indicate that they want to speak and this person takes it out.  It has their name on it so they won’t get lost.  When they’re done speaking, they put it back.  What I need to know is that people won’t interrupt me or say bad things about your idea.  You can’t talk without your thing being out.


RD:  These (plastic circles) are everybody else.  The golden thing is me.  There is a smiley face.  I need to feel smiley and good.  The lines are everybody paying attention to me while I am talking.  That’s how I need to feel.



SK:  I feel comfortable high up so I made a safe spot game.  The white spot gets you into the safe spot and then the ball rolls into your safe spot – there are four spaces there.  Then you share an idea.

Levia:  How did you get into the safe spot?

SK:  People listen to you, and respect you and are kind to you.

MC:  Can bad stuff happen there?

SK:  No.  The blue spot is getting shut down.  Hey, there should be dice to throw for this game.

Levia:  What do you need to land on the white spot?

SK:  If people like your ideas you can go to the safe spot.




MC:  When there’s not too much energy or a lot of sound – I like small quiet spaces, not a lot of people or sounds.  When the energy gets really high the bell rings and this opens to release then energy. This launches back up so we’re not that tired and holds the energy again.



OD:  The white ones are the bystanders. That’s me.  These people (the bottle caps) are distracted.  This is the protagonist (the yellow piece in the middle).  It starts yellow and then turns red.  I’m getting ideas even though I’m not sharing from listening and then I’m sharing – when they run out of ideas, then we get inspired by what they were saying.  They are trying to pull people in with this hook, that’s what I’m trying not to do.  When bystanders – we change their thinking to orange (OD opens the yellow piece and pulls a red one out) but I only had a red one.  All their little beads are intervening with new ideas.



MB:  Like SK, I am safe high up.  I am kind of shy, even with people I am comfortable with.  It’s helpful when people push me to do things.  Sometimes, if I can write or draw pictures, it helps me growing ideas or start new ideas.  I draw in metaphors.  Sometimes it helps me if a friend goes first.  I put 28 of these in here. These are people pushing me.   Some pieces are part of it, and I am not sure why.  The mirror is recording what people say.  I write a question or a big idea and then I change it.  Like a magic box I change it.  These are another way of showing I like people to push me to share and do something.

Teacher Reflection

What a gift for me to hear these voices, and to get to know these learners better through their work with materials where they got to construct knowledge with their minds, hands, rationality and emotions connected!  Now I wonder, for these individual students and others:

  • How can I support children to do some intentional shifting and focusing to support  them to consider their own thinking and ideas alongside others?
  • How can systems address a need for a strong sense of fairness when it comes to taking turns and being able to share thinking in a safe environment, surrounded by respectful listeners and peers who care about you and your ideas?
  • How can students realize when they are over stimulated, how can they take care of themselves and release their energy and refocus?
  • How do we honor the important role of bystanders in the group?
  • How do we support children in the hard work of exercising self control to not be pulled away from group thinking?
  • How do we support children who are more quiet and shy?  What is the role of a supportive brain buddy in group work?  What possibilities exist for children to incorporate different languages to support their thinking during a group conversation?
  • And how much richer will all of work be moving forward because we had these experiences?